This is my review of On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti.
Shami Chakrabarti’s media appearances always win my admiration for her passionate sincerity, eloquence and the humour bubbling up beneath the intense conviction. So, I had high expectations of this account of more than a decade of employment, mostly as Director, of Liberty, formed in 1934 as the National Council of Civil Liberties in response to the brutal police handling of the Jarrow hunger marchers.
The author concentrates for the most part on her work, rather than personal life, reminding us in the process of the wide-ranging erosion of our civil liberties during the turbulent first decade of this century, which we too readily forget in the face of the rise of the Islamic State which we failed to foresee, the strangling of the Arab Spring in countries like Egypt, the tragedy of Syria and ongoing appalling treatment of the Palestinians.
Often, it is not until the section of a new law is implemented that its lack of clarity or potential to cause injustice is exposed. So it is that Liberty has campaigned against police restrictions on the right to demonstrate peacefully; extradition of British citizens to countries where they may find it impossible to mount a defence and be subject to harsher law; the holding without charge of non-UK nationals suspected of terrorism – Liberty’s mantra is “Charge or release”. Shami Chakrabarti deplores the reduction in legal aid for the poor, and mocks the blunt use of ASBOs rather than measures to address the causes of delinquency. She cites Tony Blair’s own anecdote of the youth who explained that he couldn’t vote for him as he had been banned from the school where the ballot was to be held, plus the sadder ludicrous example of the suicidal woman banned from setting foot on bridges.
Shami Chakrabarti has particularly harsh comments for the Labour Party which might have been expected to protect liberties more than the right: Tony Blair’s desire for six month “Control Orders” on suspected terrorists was eventually wittled down to a twenty-eight day detention power, far longer than that permitted in the States or France, and a flagrant contradiction of the Common Law principle of a person being innocent until proved guilty. These Orders, like the attempts to return suspected terrorists to countries of origin where they might be tortured were all based on the fear and security concerns triggered by 9/11.
Shami Chakrabarti likes clichés, and alternates a chatty style with some tortuous sentences (possibly written in a hurry) which I sometimes struggled to understand. Since even strong supporters of Liberty will take issue with some of the stances she has taken, I would have liked more recognition on her part of considered differing viewpoints, such as the problem that some asylum seekers are really economic migrants, and that too fast a pace of entry puts an excessive stress on UK infrastructure, housing supply and the indigenous poor.
Liberty’s work is controversial since it may defend the rights of criminals and bogus claimants , but that is not the point. As Shami Chakrabarti reiterates, what matters is that justice, fairness and equality under sound laws are upheld, on the basis that if they are not, eventually one’s own rights will be at risk. “You don’t know what you had till it’s gone.”